Is this the end of the humble push button?

The city as we know it, is changing. Amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19 our cities, our neighbourhoods and our people have had to adapt to a new way of being. Physical distancing restrictions have changed the way we communicate, connect, interact, move and function within both our public and private worlds.

This new socially distanced and germ-conscious existence has required us to modify our behaviour and our physical actions. Simple acts of walking down the street, sitting on a park bench, using a drinking fountain, purchasing a coffee, or pushing open a door all require some form of physical improvisation. A 1.5m step to the side, the use of a clothing-protected elbow or knee, an awkward pause and shimmy dance around a stranger, a pre and post cleanse of the hands.... But what does all this mean for a city that is designed to be traversed, pushed, pulled and shared with others?

A significant victim of COVID-19 is the humble pedestrian crossing button. Most familiar to those in Australia and New Zealand, the PB/5 pedestrian push button is an iconic design that has influenced the way we cross the road down-under since 1984. Designed by a team from Nielsen Design Associates, the product was conceived with form, function and longevity in mind. Not to be fooled by its minimalist appearance, the PB/5 is a complex feat of engineering that addresses the needs of a broad spectrum of users. The vibrating upper metal plate assists those who are hard of hearing. A loud-speaker, microphone, internal amplifier and raised arrowassists those with visual impairments. Epoxy powder-coated aluminium castings and tamper proof fasteners were designed to ensure the product could withstand weather and vandalism. The button itself, whether pressed calmly or given a quick succession of impatient jabs, is robust and foolproof.

It seems the designers left nothing to fail. Sturdy, elegant and intuitive – the PB/5 has stood the test of time and made its mark on our cities. However, the outbreak of coronavirus across the world has now questioned the viability of the public push button. In Sydney and Brisbane, pedestrian crossing buttons throughout the CBD have been turned off for the ‘foreseeable future’ to help combat the spread of the virus. Online petitions to automate the buttons across other states are fast gaining traction. What no one could have predicted back in 1984, was how the humble push button - which was designed to withstand millions of pushes - would hold up in a world where buttons are no longer pushed.

While the future of the public push button lies in limbo, it is now our job as designers to re-imagine the design of the unsuspecting victims of the global pandemic. Together we must use this time as an opportunity to bring about safer and more resilient cities for the benefit of all its inhabitants.

Illustration by Becca Walthall

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